We're all for a good peaceful protest. As long-time readers know, I've been an adamant critic of the bailouts of mismanaged financial institutions, as well as various illegal policy actions that have been pursued by the Fed since the financial crisis began in 2008. Undoubtedly, there is good and bad on Wall Street, and we know a lot of smart, well-meaning financial advisors who go to work every day with the goal of improving the financial security of their clients, who do careful research, avoid speculation, and provide a service to others through their profession. A functioning economy needs to allocate capital effectively, and there Wall Street can be essential.
Unfortunately, over the past 15 years or so, the basic function of the financial markets has been corrupted into what I've grown to view as a self-serving carnival of speculation, where many participants are interested in nothing except getting the next rally going at public expense, regardless of how badly market signals are distorted, how recklessly capital is misallocated, or even whether what they do has any positive effect on the economy or the country (some of the sleazier ones even have their own shows on basic cable).
There is no single source of this transformation. Part of it is a remnant of the dot-com and technology bubbles, when market valuations moved to nearly triple the historical norm, and investors began to view perpetual market advances and high returns as a birthright. The subsequent decade of zero overall returns for the stock market largely reflects a reversion to more normal (but still cyclically elevated) valuations.
Another part of this transformation is due to the activist policies of Federal Reserve, which has continually attempted to short-circuit every instance of short-term economic discomfort by distorting the menu of investment returns (e.g. zero interest rate policies) in an effort to provoke investors to accept fresh speculative risk. Ironically, the long-term effect of distorting market signals has been to drive good, potentially productive capital into wholly unproductive uses - the housing bubble being a prime example. As a result, real U.S. gross domestic investment has not grown at all since 1998, and the portion financed by domestic U.S. savings has collapsed, so much of the new capital we've accumulated is owned by foreigners.
Undoubtedly, one of the greatest rhetorical victories of Wall Street has been to successfully plant in the minds of the public the idea that some financial institutions are simply "too big to fail," and that the "failure" of "systemically important" institutions will result in global financial meltdown and Depression. The reality is much different.
So, with the hope of providing the Occupy Wall Street protesters with some talking points, what follows are some perspectives that might be useful in framing the issues that we are facing as an economy.